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Who Was Kelly Thomas?

                                                          by Allen R. Kates, MFAW, BCECR

                                                                               Schizophrenic Kelly Thomas

                                            Kelly Thomas Was Not A Sweet Boy

Lest we paint Kelly Thomas as a sweet boy who the police had no reason to detain, we have to examine the facts. Thomas was often more than difficult to get along with. At times, he was confrontational, angry and hostile. Seventeen years before he was killed, he had attacked his grandfather with a fireplace poker. However, his father said that he has never been afraid of him.

For fifteen years, Thomas was in and out of treatment programs. He abhorred taking his medications, was unresponsive to treatment and preferred to live on the street instead of in designated housing.

Jeremy Popoff, owner of the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, said, “Kelly scared people. We… were always having to kick him out of our bathrooms or tell him to leave customers alone. Then he would yell at us.”*

Thomas died on the street outside this restaurant. The 911 telephone call that lead to Thomas's death came from a waiter at this restaurant. The alleged bogus call reported that Thomas was breaking into or peering into parked cars. After Thomas's death, the waiter was fired.

Another business owner, said Thomas “was an asshole to everybody.”*

The media have shown early pictures of Thomas as a clean-cut young man with a smile on his face. However, years after schizophrenia had ravaged his brain, his appearance was nothing like the image his family would like to remember. “He had long matted hair and a matted beard that stuck to his body,” the Slidebar owner said.*

Popoff said they had given Thomas “lots of stuff,” but he was thrown out of the restaurant because he would not respect their customers. Popoff added that the police were generally “good to the homeless” who hung out near his bar. “The cops gave him a lot of breaks.”*

*Source: When Worlds Collide, 7/23/2011

None of his behavior is surprising because Thomas was mentally ill, a schizophrenic, with little impulse control and a distorted sense of reality. He was off his meds and he lived on the street where he was vulnerable and defenseless.

Consequently, police officers should not expect reasonable behavior from someone like him, nor should they treat him like a regular citizen. Instead, they should treat a schizophrenic or any mentally ill person with patience, kindness and respect, no matter how bizarre their behavior may be. Strong-arm tactics will not work on them, and will likely lead to confrontation.

Life On The Street

I don’t know everything about Thomas’s life on the street, but every schizophrenic I’ve talked to has lived on the street at some point, including women, and has been beaten, raped, robbed, exploited and thrown in jail for drunkenness or bizarre behavior. I doubt his experiences were any different.

Street people like schizophrenics hang out with alcoholics, drug addicts, other mentally ill people, and with those with illnesses like AIDS, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and raging infections. Schizophrenics on the street usually lose the ability to protect or care for themselves. Their hygiene deteriorates rapidly. They seldom wash their hair or bodies or brush their teeth. They have unprotected sex. They would go with anybody who paid attention to them, often ending up in dangerous situations. They eat from dumpsters, and come into contact with contaminated food, feces, insects and rats. Sometimes they sleep in dumpsters.

Does A Schizophrenic’s Behavior Show Intent?

But does a schizophrenic’s behavior show his intent? By that I mean… if he shouts at you, does that mean he is angry? Maybe, maybe not. Schizophrenics don’t always make the connection between acting out and being angry. They don’t have control over their responses, and often their responses to stressful situations seem inappropriate to us. Not to them.

Is Their Anger Really Anger?

They have lost the ability to relate to others in an appropriate way. When I worked with schizophrenics as a counselor, sometimes they shouted at me and appeared angry, but later apologized. They didn’t apologize for being angry, as they didn’t feel angry, but apologized for shouting and being disrespectful. That apology didn’t stop them from doing it again.

Schizophrenics Like Kelly Thomas Are Not Bad People

What’s important to understand is that schizophrenics like Thomas are not depraved, immoral, bad people. They are not psychopathic killers, as we are often led to believe by movies and the news media. They are possessed, haunted and controlled by forces beyond our understanding. To understand them, we would have to live in their heads.

Lives Of Sadness And Misery

Their lives are filled with sadness, gloom, rejection and misery. They don’t want to hurt anyone. They want to disappear, feel no more pain, have no more conflict and hopelessness. To this end, they subdue their fears, voices, visions and despair in drugs, booze, nicotine, caffeine, glue and anything they can get their hands on.

On meds, and with daily routine, they can function. Without meds or something to do (and somebody to tell them what to do), they are lost souls, wandering the streets of our towns trying to reach out for… they don’t know what.

Bringing Moments Of Joy To Destroyed Lives

The Clinical Director of Phoenix House asked me before I started as a counselor what I expected to achieve by working at a residential facility with 12 schizophrenics. I told her that I did not expect to change anyone nor make a difference. What I could do was bring moments, just moments, of happiness and friendship to destroyed lives. She thought that was motivation as good as any.

Police Officers Are Not Counselors

Police officers, however, are not counselors. They are not social workers or therapists. They have a thankless job to do. Keep the peace, assess a situation, call in the right people to look after it, and then move on to the next job. Dealing with schizophrenics is beyond the qualifications or skills of the job. But should it be?

The mentally ill on our city streets are not going to go away. Rather the opposite may occur. As less money is available to help them, their population will grow, a population of the thrown-away, homeless, destitute and needy.

For more details about schizophrenics like Kelly Thomas, please click here.

For the official definition of schizophrenia, please click here.

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